1 Samuel 20: David finally figures out that Saul doesn’t like him

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Chapter 20 feels awkward following the last few chapters, despite the note in the first verse telling us that the events take place after David’s escape to Naioth. The chapter makes far more sense if we assume that it came from a separate tradition, one in which David only suspects that Saul has turned against him.

My New Bible Commentary, which frequently argues against the multi-source hypothesis, tries to explain away the oddity by casting this chapter as an attempt to convince Jonathan of the threat:

Certainly after the events of ch. 19 David can have been in no real doubt as to Saul’s intentions; but this chapter does not in fact suggest that he had – rather to the contrary (v. 3). It was Jonathan who could not believe it of his father (v. 2). (p.298)

Which sort of works. We could read it as Jonathan believing that 1 Sam. 19:6 ended the matter, naively believing that his father has passed through his wanting to kill David phase. But then we have to believe that what follows – with Saul tossing a spear at David and David escaping and all the assassins – happened without Jonathan’s knowledge. The same Jonathan who confidently declares in 1 Sam. 20:2 that his father tells him absolutely everything.

The result, then, of accepting the New Bible Commentary‘s view is seeing Jonathan as an absolute naif.

Which seems to fit the portrayal of him in this chapter, honestly. When David asks Jonathan what he’s done for Saul to want to kill him, Jonathan tells him not to worry because he won’t die. And I’m just like, that wasn’t the question, you fool. (Allowing, of course, for translation and rhetoric.)

Jonathan’s reasoning is that Saul tells him everything, so he will know if Saul is plotting to kill David. David, however, isn’t so sure. Saul knows that the two of them are buddies, he argues. The implication being that he might control the outflow of information in Jonathan’s presence as a result. “Truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3).

The Plan

David and Jonathan come up with a plan to prove, once and for all, whether Saul is trying to kill David. David will go into hiding for three days. If, during that time, Saul asks after him, Jonathan is to say that he’d asked permission to go to Bethlehem for a sacrifice – a family affair. Interestingly, this is the same cover Samuel gave in 1 Sam. 16:2-3 to avoid arousing suspicion when going to anoint David.

If Saul accepts the explanation, David will know that it’s safe to return to court. If, however, Saul is angry, they will know that he is determined to do bad things to David. Because, apparently, two spear-throwing incidents weren’t evidence enough.

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

Their conversation continues and Jonathan again answers the wrong question. They plan a communication system to allow Jonathan to get news to David without arousing suspicion, then they renew their vows to each other. In the midst of it, Jonathan says: “should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also” (1 Sam. 20:13). I haven’t read ahead, but this sounds like some major foreshadowing.

On the first night of David’s hiding, Saul notices his absence at dinner. He figures that David must have accidentally become ritually unclean and shrugs it off. On the second night, however, he becomes suspicious (as we read in Exodus-Deuteronomy, most instances of uncleanliness are purged by evening, so the explanation doesn’t hold up over a second day).

He asks Jonathan where David is, and Jonathan gives the planned excuse about the sacrifice in Bethlehem. Saul becomes slightly irritated, calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Sam. 20:30), going on to say: “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”

If we take the view that David and Jonathan don’t just like each other but like like each other, it seems that this could be a reference to that. Another possibility is that Saul is recognizing David as competition for the crown – Jonathan’s competition. So long as Jonathan is on Team David, “neither you not your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam. 20:31). The “shame” he speaks of, then, would be of turning against the interests of his family by not pursuing the creation of a dynasty.

To punctuate his argument, Saul then throws a spear at his son.

This is a guy who is apparently known for throwing spears at people, as he did so in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, then again in 1 Sam. 19:10. You’d think there’d be a point (no pun intended) where people would just refuse to be in a room with Saul if he has a spear nearby.

In accordance with their plan, Jonathan heads out to the field and fires an arrow, directing his servant to fetch it in the way that would tell David that it is most definitely not safe for him.

Despite all the secret signals, they end up meeting up and having a long chat anyway, during which they re-confirm their bond, kiss, and cry a lot.

Not that both times Jonathan has saved David so far, it has involved David hiding in a field (1 Sam. 19:1-3).

 

1 Samuel 19: Far-falling apples

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Saul makes no secret of his desire to kill David. He tells all his servant, and even his son, Jonathan. Jonathan, you’ll remember, is the guy who’s knit his soul to David’s, so this turns out to be a pretty bad idea on Saul’s part.

Again, we are told of Jonathan’s special relationship with David. In this case, he “delighted much in David” (1 Sam. 19:1). Abbie at Better Than Esdras scanned through the text for other uses of “delighted,” and did find it used in a sexual (albeit generally non-consensual) manner. However, it is also used in Num. 14:8 to express God’s feelings toward the chosen people.

Abbie’s final conclusion is:

In the context, I read Jonathan “choosing” David as an analogy to YHWH “choosing” the Israelites – Jonathan pledges his devotion to David, because he’s goddamn King David. They form a covenant, just as YHWH and the Israelites had a covenant.

Regardless, it’s clear that Jonathan cares for David, so of course he spills the beans and instructs David to hide while Jonathan tries to change Saul’s mind. He is successful, and Saul promises that “as the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death” (1 Sam. 19:6). David is returned to court and everyone lived happily ever after. Or did they?

David must still die

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

War breaks out again, and David heads out to kill the Philistines. Meanwhile, the evil spirit comes back to Saul, so he sits in his house with a spear in his hand. This time, Saul isn’t simply flying into a rage. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he is able to wait with intent until David’s return. So perhaps his evil spirit is violent paranoid delusion? David plays the lyre, Saul throws the spear at him, and as in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, David evades him. At least it was only the one spear this time, and at least this time David has the good sense to flee.

He doesn’t flee very far, however, as he apparently just goes home. Saul, really intent on killing David this time, sends “messengers” (who really seem more like assassins) to wait outside David’s house, hoping to kill him in the morning.

David’s wife, Michal, knows that they are there, however, and sends David out the window. She then makes a dummy in his bed, using a teraphim, a term that is elsewhere used to refer to household gods, and what appears to be a pillow made with goat hair to stand in the place of David’s head. I see murmurings that Michal’s possession of a teraphim marks her as an idolater, but I think that there are a few issues with this: Firstly, the text describes the location as David’s house. If she has a teraphim, so does David. Secondly, why couldn’t the same term be used to refer to a decorative statue? Michal is a princess, so it stands to reason that her home might include some decorative statues. Either way, the trick is so classic that it has it’s own entry on TV Tropes.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

When Saul sends in the assassin to take David, Michal refuses him, claiming that, like Ferris Bueller, David is ill. Saul persists, however, and his assassin demands to see David’s bed. He does not, unfortunately, attempt to stab the dummy, but rather recognizes it immediately as a fake. Michal’s excuse is that David said to her, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” (1 Sam. 19:17), which I take to mean that she is claiming that he threatened her, even though the plan was clearly her idea. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take from this that Michal is merely covering her own butt now that David is safely away, or if we’re supposed to slot Michal into the liar category.

It’s notable that this chapter shows two of Saul’s children defecting, choosing to be loyal to David instead. If we assume that at least some of the sources going into 1 Samuel are propagandistic, having Saul’s own children reject him in favour of the competition is a pretty obvious move.

What happens in Ramah

Having escaped, David heads to Samual at Ramah. He tells him all that has happened, and the two go to live at Naioth (which, from the context, is apparently a district of Ramah).

Saul finds out where David is and sends his messenger assassins. When they arrive, they are met by a company of prophesying prophets with Samuel leading them. The assassins are overtaken by the spirit of God and begin prophesying. This likely refers to an ecstatic form of worship, something like speaking in tongues. From the description in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, these guys seem like a rather wild bunch, what with all the music and such.

Saul sends a second group of assassins, but they join the prophets as well. As does the third group. Finally, Saul decides to take matters into his own hands, and he comes down to Ramah. When he arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him too, and he also begins prophesying. In fact, the party gets so wild that “he too stripped off his clothes” (1 Sam. 19:24) and he lies naked all day and night. Because of this, it was said of him: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 19:24). This story was clearly an alternative explanation for what appears to have been a common saying, as it so directly mirrors the one in 1 Sam. 10:12.

For those keeping track of sources differences, this story conflicts with 1 Sam. 15:35, in which we are told that Samuel and Saul separate and never see each other again. Harmonizers may take comfort in the fact that 1 Sam. 19 never explicitly states that Saul and Samuel see each other, it is merely implied.